Unfortunately our society really doesn’t support the idea of self-compassion. So hopefully we can change the adults and the teachers and everyone else around them to help support the concept. Most people are afraid that self-compassion is gonna lead to self-pity, or undermine your motivation, or it’s self indulgent, or it’s gonna do away with your sense of responsibility, or that it’s weak. These are all common cultural myths, which luckily research has disproven all of them. None of them are true, it’s actually the exact opposite but common culture hasn’t really learned that yet. So there’s a lot of blocks to self-compassion.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
We need self-compassion, first of all, just for ourselves to cope with the difficulty of life, right, and the more we give ourselves compassion, especially in a care giving context, whether we’re parents or teachers, or just working maybe with your older elderly parents or maybe you’re a therapist. Any time you work with someone or care for someone who is in pain, you are actually experiencing their pain in your own brain through the process of Empathetic Resonance, right, so we’re built to feel what other people are feeling. In addition to giving ourselves compassion for our own pain outside of the caregiving context, when you’re with someone who’s struggling, in the moment, not off the job, not later on, in the moment you need to recognize this is hard for me right now. I’m feeling this person’s pain. Sometimes it can be overwhelming when we’re in the presence of someone who is really struggling. So in the moment we need to consciously and actively give ourselves compassion as well as give the other person compassion. But we need to have the lens of compassion flow both ways.
Otherwise what happens is we just focus on helping others and we don’t include ourselves in the circle of compassion. We become overwhelmed and burned out, and that’s a problem for a couple reasons. One is obviously it’s hard to care for someone when you’re overwhelmed and burned out. You know we lose tons of people in the medical profession and education because of that burn out, but it’s really important to recognize how the brain works, this process of Empathetic Resonance.
So your neurons are firing, reading the pain of the person you’re working with, but the person you’re working with or students, or whoever it is, their neurons are also firing with you. So when you’re burned out and exhausted and frustrated. You may think you aren’t showing it, but people can read your feelings at a pre-verbal level because the way that brains are designed. If you’re feeling frustrated and burned out, every single person you come in contact with is picking up on these feelings of frustration and overwhelm. But if you’re actively giving yourself compassion, you’re actively saying, ” This is really hard for me right now. I need to be here to support myself, I need to care for myself in this moment. If your own mind if filled with compassion then everyone you actually work with, they’re resonating with your compassion. So our emotions aren’t really separate from other people. Our emotions are co-generated, so to just focus on others and not yourself is, I really think a huge mistake not only because you’re burned out but because you also can’t give the person the benefit of interacting with someone who is full of compassion.
Turning Compassion Inward
If you just focus on other people, you can maybe have empathy for them or even compassion for them, but if you aren’t compassionate internally. The reason you have empathy fatigue is because your mirror neurons are resonating with the pain of others and you got burned out. So you need to, in the moment, not self-care. Self-care is great but self-care happens off the job. You can leave a classroom and say, ” I’m burned out, I’m gonna go get a massage. Kids see you later.” That’s not gonna go over very well.
You need to in the moment, turn your lens of compassion inward first of all. This is the mindfulness, validate, this is really hard for me. I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m feeling burned out, I’m feeling confused, I can’t handle this. All of those feelings that come up, we need to mindfully acknowledge them in the moment, and people think we’re just supposed to be focusing on it outwardly. No, you need to focus inwardly. This is really hard for me right now, and then I actually use a lot of physical gestures of compassion, touch, and it’s just like, ” I’m so sorry sweetheart. This is so hard, you’re feeling so overwhelmed. You’re doing the best you can, I’m here for you,” however you wanna talk to yourself to convey that sense of parent connectedness.
Lastly the feeling of connection. Yes of course anyone will feel overwhelmed in this situation. There are millions of teachers all around the world who are feeling like this. It’s not like you’re doing it wrong, that somehow you’re a bad teacher or that you can’t do it. This is part of what it means to be a teacher. So it’s not just me, de-personalize it with the common humanity, you give yourself the warmth, and you recognize acknowledge your own feelings of being overwhelmed while you’re within the classroom, or while you’re with the therapy patient, or while you’re with your kid who’s having a tantrum. We actually teach a practice, and I maybe can teach this on at the end where you breathe compassion in for yourself in. Then out for the other. In for yourself out for the other.
What happens normally is people just breathe out. They just give compassion out, they exclude themselves, and then they burn out, and then they get frustrated, and then the people they work with start resonating with their frustration and actually aren’t being helped to the same level they would be if you were full of loving connected presence in the classroom and in therapy with your kids, if you were embodying loving connective presence because you are acknowledging your own pain and giving yourself compassion, the people you work with are directly benefiting from it through their mirror neurons.
That’s why I’m such an evangelist about this stuff because I’m the parent of an autistic kid as many of your listeners may know, and I can tell you when I didn’t give myself compassion when he was really having horrible tantrums. When I just focused on trying to help him and I didn’t attend to what I was feeling in the moment, he would ramp up. Then whenever I could remember, ” Oh, that’s right, okay turn my lens inward.” This is really hard. I’m feeling so overwhelmed. What do I need to support and care for myself, and remembering this is part of being human. Then he would calm down. He was like a mirror for me. I saw it over and over and over again. It makes me so sad that people think that self-compassion is selfish. It is actually the kindest thing that you can do for any other person you come in contact who is resonating with your mental state. That’s in addition to the fact that it gives you more emotional resources to care for others.